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Let your emotion go, but not in the boardroom

A smile at an inopportune time can discourage cooperation, expert says

While Disney’s Academy Award-winning Frozen anthem “Let It Go” has dominated the Billboard 200, sales records and parents’ eardrums with its message of all-out emotion, that approach probably won’t always resonate in the boardroom, according to a study by the USC Marshall School of Business and USC faculty.

“A business person in a negotiation,” said Peter Carnevale, professor of management and organization, “should be careful about managing his or her emotions because the person across the table is making inferences based on facial expressions. For example, a smile at the wrong time can discourage cooperation.”

It may not be a good idea to show how happy you are because it might lead the other person to think that you did better than they did.

Peter Carnavale

“Reading People’s Minds From Emotion Expressions in Interdependent Decision-Making,” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, examines how the interpretation of facial expressions can impact economic decision-making such as negotiation.

The study — a joint project between Carnevale and Celso de Melo, a postdoctoral research associate, as well as colleagues at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences — illustrates the intricate role that emotion plays in business interactions. The study indicates that what you show on your face is as important as what you say in negotiation and what you do with your negotiation offers.


Emotions can range from anger to regret, the study reports.

“We all know that negotiation is a core competency of leadership and management,” Carnevale said, “and the ability to achieve cooperation is especially challenging in today’s multifaceted workplace. Facial expressions that emphasize different kinds of emotions give meaning to normal conversation. Good negotiators are adept at making offers and talking in negotiation, but also at managing their facial expressions.”

To test the impact that emotional expression can have on negotiations, researchers paired individuals with computer-generated images of an opposing negotiator in five related experiments.

Each featured a two-person task in which the payoffs for each player depended on the simultaneous choice of both players. If both players invested — cooperated — both earned money. If neither player invested, neither earned money. And if one player invested and the other player did not, the non-investor outperformed the investor by taking advantage of the investment without putting in any effort or money. The task represents a classic problem in interdependence and economic decision-making.

In one experiment, the image of the other player either smiled, expressing pleasure after cooperation, or frowned, signaling regret after exploitation. In other cases, it expressed pleasure after exploitation and regret after cooperation.

Technology has implications for education and training

Carnevale and his colleagues found that people cooperated significantly more with a computer counterpart that smiled when cooperating and expressing sorrow after exploiting the participant. In other words, the study results indicated that context can determine the meaning ascribed to a counterpart’s emotional expression and subsequent reactions.

“If you come to an agreement in a negotiation and you are really happy, it may not be a good idea to show how happy you are because it might lead the other person to think that you did better than they did,” Carnevale said. “But in other circumstances, showing strong emotion may be the ticket to success.”

Carnevale also observed that Disney animators know the importance of what a person shows on his or her face.

“One of the remarkable features of Queen Elsa,” he said, “is the emotion displayed in her face; compare it to Snow White, in 1937.

“Advances in graphics technology, including those developed by my colleagues at the ICT Virtual Humans Group, have tremendous implications not only for entertainment but also for education and training systems, and for remote business via animated images.”

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Let your emotion go, but not in the boardroom

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